THE COLOURS & FLAVOURS OF ROME - Jean-Christophe Babin, Bulgari

April 2016

by Pierre Maillard

Jean-Christophe Babin was first introduced to the world of watchmaking when he was appointed CEO of TAG Heuer by LVMH in 1999. In his twelve years on the job he built on the brand’s sporty allure and longstanding quest for precision to make it into one of the most recognisable names in world watchmaking, demonstrating along the way that mechanical horology is capable of mastering the measurement of time down to the ten-thousandth of a second. On the strength of this success, LVMH made him head of Bulgari. From the largely technical world of a sports watch brand, in May 2013 he transferred to the Latin refinement of a brand whose roots are in jewellery. Was it a difficult transition?

Jean-Christophe Babin, Bulgari
Jean-Christophe Babin, Bulgari
“Both the Serpenti and the Lucea emerged from our jewellery, and are in no way a ‘reduction’ of a men’s watch. They exude a very Roman style in terms of their opulence, their powerful architectural presence, their use of colour and stone-setting. But although their inspiration is Roman and Latin, these watches are also very Swiss in terms of the attention to detail in their manufacture.”

When you were head of TAG Heuer there seemed to be complete osmosis between you and the company. You were the embodiment of TAG Heuer. How have you managed the shift to a completely different universe, that of Bulgari?

There is one overwhelmingly important factor that comes into play: the city of Rome. I am truly in love with this unique city, its architecture, its art and its day-to-day culture, which are the deepest sources of inspiration for Bulgari, and the roots of its exceptional creativity, which has endured for 131 years now. And I have found the same passion, the same pride, in the people I’m working with as I did at TAG Heuer. There is a genuine obsession with design and creativity, and a very refined sense of taste.

But there’s one big difference: Bulgari doesn’t only make watches...

You’re right, there is a certain complexity due to our five parallel activities: jewellery, watches, perfume, leather goods and, let’s not forget, hotels [Bulgari has three five-star boutique hotels in Milan, London and Bali, three more are due to open in 2017 and a further four contracts are in the pipeline]. But this complexity is also an opportunity, I might even say a key factor in our success. Bulgari has moved out of classic luxury into what I would call the luxury of experience. The concept of service is at the heart of this experience, which goes beyond mere business. We want to bring the dimension of global hospitality to our boutiques; hospitality Italian style, which means chic but warm. Bulgari is the jeweller of hospitality.

Let’s talk about your boutiques. It’s becoming clear that the mono-brand boutique model is not a panacea.

We have 300 boutiques. Clearly, profitability can be an issue in a shop that sells just one category of products. But Bulgari boutiques have three or four pillars to rely on. Not only is it easier, but there’s no doubt that jewellery is more of a ‘destination’ than watches alone, and from that starting point we can start to build bridges, create links.

Bulgari is perceived mainly as a jeweller and as such has a very feminine image. How does this affect your watch business?

Jewellery is 100% feminine, obviously. Up to 2010 our watchmaking was split evenly between men and women. But the launch of the Serpenti in steel or steel and gold (until that time it had only been available in a high jewellery version) with a price tag of around €5,000 considerably increased the proportion of women’s watches we sold. When I arrived we added the Lucea collection, with its round case and scale-linked bracelet. Unlike the iconic Bulgari Bulgari it has no visible logo, which makes it far more mainstream. With these three complementary lines – Serpenti, Lucea and Bulgari Bulgari – in addition to the jewellery versions, our women’s watch collections are now very coherent. Both the Serpenti and the Lucea grew out of our jewellery lines, and are not in any way a ‘reduction’ of a men’s watch. They exude a very Roman style in terms of their opulence, their powerful architectural presence, their use of colour and stone-setting. But although their inspiration is Roman and Latin, these watches are also very Swiss in terms of the attention to detail in their manufacture.

Is Haute Horlogerie the masculine counterpart to High Jewellery?

Absolutely. We have considerable expertise in this domain, and with our complications manufacture in Le Sentier in Switzerland we can offer a pretty complete range [a result of the purchase of Daniel Roth and Gérald Genta]. I’m thinking of the Bi-Retro, the Octo Finissimo, which has the world’s flattest tourbillon, and our Grandes Sonneries. These watches also showcase the Bulgari style, in terms of the originality of their dials, the way the shapes are put together, the use of colour and the architecture of the movement. And on the subject of movements, not many people know that we are highly vertically integrated: 90% of our men’s watches are equipped with in-house Bulgari movements. The same goes for the women’s collections, where only the small 33 mm and 28 mm movements are outsourced.

The Bulgari style is highly recognisable. It’s a far cry from Nordic minimalism, for example. Does this restrict you to a particular, circumscribed clientele?

Roman exuberance, Latin values and the uninhibited warmth of their lifestyle are appreciated all over the world. Bulgari has a very well-defined niche, but its attraction is universal. We’re not completely focused on one particular kind of client, such as Italian consumers, for example. Quite the opposite. Our positioning is truly global: Asia is certainly very important to us, but our European base is very strong and we have a solid presence in the Americas, with 40 boutiques. Luxury is universal.

Nevertheless, everyone everywhere seems to be putting on the brakes...

Everyone is feeling the pain, but we have come through it relatively unscathed. Why? Because a line like Serpenti has no equivalent, no real competition. The more recent Lucea with its red cabochon was a game-changer. So when demand softened, all that happened was that the strong growth we were enjoying slowed down. Bulgari has a huge and vigorous creative arsenal, in terms of both products and marketing. The key to dealing with the fragmentation of tastes, which we are seeing everywhere, even in China, lies in creativity, in the special, unique flavour of your product.